As Doctor Who approaches its almighty 50th, SFX talks time and space with Tom Baker, the fourth incarnation of the renegade Gallifreyan. You might need to bring your own jelly babies...
We’re celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who . Can you explain the show’s longevity?
No, I can’t explain the show’s longevity, no more than I can explain my own longevity. It’s a happy accident, I imagine. There’s nothing quite like it.
How did people react to you when you were the Doctor?
Anyone who’s on television gets a reaction, especially when you’re playing a heroic part like the Doctor. And it still happens now, with much older people. Some of them are telling me lies. I met an old lady of about 85 the other day and she said to me, “You know, when I was a little girl, I used to hide behind the sofa when I saw you.” And I thought well, she’s slipping the time a bit there… People introduce me to their grandchildren, or to their children. It’s very sweet – it’s passed on, in lovely affection at home, from one to another, the parents showing my old stuff. Small children sometimes approach me and say “Is it true you used to be Doctor Who?” Quite bold little kids. That’s in Waitrose. They’re particularly talkative and articulate in Waitrose. They start as journalists very young there.
Imagine there’s a parallel world where you turned down the chance to play the Doctor. What happened to that Tom Baker?
If I had turned it down? But it’s inconceivable to turn it down, because at the time I got Doctor Who I wasn’t at all happy. I was going through a bad time of feeling rejected, even though I’d had a flirtation with movies and worked with Paolo Pasolini and people like that. And then I was on the building site, and having no skill there except to make the tea and use a Kango drill. So when the opportunity came to play Doctor Who, it was a jackpot. Not that I knew anything about Doctor Who , because I didn’t watch it – it was either football time or else we were in the pub or something like that. The man who set it up for me, Bill Slater [BBC Head of Serials], he knew me, and it just so happened – isn’t it wonderful the way it goes – that right next door to the BBC The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad by Ray Harryhausen was on [Tom starred in this as the villainous sorcerer Koura]. When Bill Slater suggested me, they said “Well, we’ve never heard of him”. So they said “Let’s go to the pictures.” And so they went next door, and saw the film, and the next thing is I was the new Doctor Who. It was in the first edition of the Standard. I didn’t tell the guys I was working with at the building site, when they were putting their bets on, two shillings each way. They got the Standard, and there I was – Tom Baker was on the front. They always called me Sir Laurence. They didn’t expect to see me again, but I went to work the next morning, famous! [Laughs]. And they were so thrilled for me. Then I legged it down to Barclays Bank and got an advance and gave them a little party. It was just wonderful. It was like being reborn, you know.
And then when I got it, and they asked me what to do with it, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. How could I? I didn’t watch the piece. I didn’t watch it when I was in it and I haven’t watched it since. So when these scripts were given to me, one of the problems, of course, was that they were being written for Jon Pertwee, who had been in it for years, so the writers were conditioned to writing for him and not for me. And so I had to wrench it my way. But having been brought up in an intensely Roman Catholic background in Liverpool I was used to miracles and angels on shoulders and all that kind of thing, and people coming back from the dead, and so it was no effort. I didn’t have to reach for that. I’ve never rated myself much as an actor and I hated being told what to do. When I’d done Macbeth just before Doctor Who I saw him as a kind of comic figure. In fact one of the reviewers said “I had no idea that Macbeth was such a nice man…” So maybe I was a failure there. But I found it funny. I wanted the wicked sisters to be on right through, watching what we were saying, nudging each other. And so when I was falling into the trap they’d do a little dance or something.
Did you get to keep any mementos from your time on the show?
No, no, no. I had lots of bits and pieces but they’ve all been begged off me by the charities. It’s all gone now. I have some letters, some interesting letters, from fans who saw me as a kind of messianic figure and thought I could do miracles. They were quite mistaken, but that’s what they thought. I didn’t disabuse them. I said “Thanks very much for your letter, yours sincerely, Tom Baker…”
How would you sum up the experience of having played this extraordinary part?
Well, it was just a great experience. Actors want to get to a big audience, like journalists do, and to be admired and to get applause is one thing, but to be adored is something I really recommend. I really do. It was a wonderful thing to have access to schools or hospitals or wherever, to help out in charities or just simply bask in the applause or fly around in helicopters, protected by the SAS in Northern Ireland… It was just so much better than real life. And I stayed so long because real life at the time wasn’t so terrific, and being Doctor Who I used to look at the clock and know that at half past four we were going to stop rehearsing, and that was a sad moment for me. I didn’t want to stop rehearsing, because I wanted to stay in this beautiful, unreal world – unreal in that it was entirely fictional, but utterly real when I went out into the streets. Everywhere I went I was waving like royalty, dishing out fifty pence pieces. It was absolutely wonderful. I used to take pockets full of money, because it was so good to have money, and I’d say to a kid, confidentially, “Have a pound!” And he’d say “Oh, thanks!”. And then, confidentially, he’d say “Could you make it two?” It was marvelous, all this silliness went on all the time.
And I’m still doing it, because Big Finish Productions are still producing lots of Doctor Who , so I’m back now, in the groove, because the fans who want me don’t want me doing a terrible imitation of Daniel Craig, they want to go back in time. And of course I don’t disappoint them, because I haven’t advanced at all from Doctor Who . And so when I did do theatre things for the Royal Shakespeare and things like that, the theatres were always very packed, some of them packed absolutely. But of course what the Royal Shakespeare Company didn’t understand was that they were packed by Doctor Who fans, so naturally I had to do it like Doctor Who, because there’s no point in deliberately disappointing the audience, is there? So if I was in something really ponderous like An Inspector Calls , every now and then I had to do this Doctor Who routine, which would get gales of laughter from the audience, and of course made the other actors hate me. Mostly other actors have hated me because of my bad taste, I think.
There's no other role like it on television. Did any of your successors ever ask you for advice on how to deal with it all?
Oh no, no, no. Everyone must try his own way. Anyway, I never knew any of them. I know the same old fellows now who are going around, because we meet occasionally, but I have nothing to offer them. I never watched Doctor Who , and I’ve never watched it since. I wasn’t interested in watching Doctor Who . I was interested in doing it. And then interested in being Doctor Who, outside of a studio, which I felt was a reasonable way to promote it. You’ve got to promote what’s a success, and build on it. So sometimes, if I used to go to a BBC exhibition… kids love filling in forms, and so children would go there from Wakefield or somewhere and they’d write “John Morris, a certain school, Wakefield”, and the date. And this stuff would be sent down to me from Blackpool or wherever, and then I would fill out birthday cards. And these two girls in the office would have them all classified, and so a year afterwards a child in a little school in Wakefield would get a big picture of me, with a happy birthday, which of course would go like a hand grenade in a school of 600 children! I picked up that trick in America, when I was promoting something there. And so I did anything to build up the audience. That was marvelous. Better than life.
Will you be watching the 50 th anniversary special on November 23 rd ?
Oh, I will watch that, because that’s going to be terrific, isn’t it? Well, I hope it’s going to be terrific, because it’s such a landmark. And they’ll make it terrific, it’ll be a big emotional thing. I don’t know what they’ll do, or whether there’ll be some kind of farewell scene… I will make an exception and watch that, yeah.
Is there one actor that you would have loved to have seen play the Doctor?
There may be more than one actor… An actor I admire greatly turned it down, and I’m glad he turned it down, and that was Graham Crowden, who was genuinely a very, very eccentric man. Eccentric in an absolutely wonderful way – he would have been an amazing Doctor Who, as he was an amazing actor. And he was also a friend of mine. We were together at the National Theatre and then we did a Doctor Who together, and he was marvelous. He always went too far, like me. I was reminded of a line from The White Devil ; he was playing a villain, who’s now dying. And I said to him “Do you remember that line from The White Devil ? ‘I have caught an everlasting cold.’” It’s Flamineo, just before he dies, a marvelous line… “I have caught an everlasting cold.” It was Flamineo who also said, about the murder of Dr Julio, when somebody said “Is he competent, my lord?” – this is a John Webster play – “Is he competent, my lord? He once bottled a fart that poisioned the whole of Dublin!” Anyway, “I have caught an everlasting cold” - Graham thought was absolutely terrific. He said “I’ll do that”. The director said “That’s a marvelous line, yes.” So when it came to doing it on stage, he said “I have caught an everlasting cold… *SNIFF*” It was a sniff that both ruined it and made it. It was an actor trying to garnish something. Actors always want to please people, don’t they, in a way like waiters. They haven’t written the stuff, they haven’t cooked the food, but they want you to be happy. They pretend they have, really. Or at least I did!
The interview ended there, but Tom had a final thought for us...
The average life span is only a thousand months. That’s 4000 weeks. 29,000 days. 2.5 billion breaths. How are you feeling?